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The next New York: A science fiction writer examines the peril and politics of urban climate change

New York 2140: A Novel

Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit
2017
620 pp.
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When the oceans rise, how will the world’s great coastal cities manage? Kim Stanley Robinson poses this question in New York 2140, a “cli-fi” novel (a subgenre of speculative fiction that revolves around the impact of climate change) whose cover image reverses the famous photograph of lower Manhattan gone dark after Hurricane Sandy, showing instead a partially inundated city that is “majestic, watery, superb.”

New York in 2140 is still a hip financial nexus. Three-hundred-story skyscrapers crown the highlands of Hoboken and Brooklyn Heights, while Manhattan’s wealthiest residents have taken refuge in the “Cloister cluster,” a strip of high ground on the northern tip of the island. In the new intertidal zone, towers built on bedrock have sealed their lower floors and continue to function. Streets in the aquatropolis are busy canals, and money is pouring back into the half-drowned real estate of lower Manhattan.

The Metropolitan Life Tower has been repurposed as a housing co-op, and Robinson’s story unfolds through the overlapping lives of its residents. They include a high-ranking policewoman, an immigration rights lawyer, a hedge fund trader, a media star, a pair of computer nerds, the building superintendent, and two canal urchins. This technique is reminiscent of the one Robinson employed in his Mars trilogy and echoes John Dos Passos’s panoramic U.S.A., whose characters Robinson has described as being “like pinballs in a pinball machine, bouncing around America in the 1920s, trying to figure it out.”

This is what the Met Lifers do. They intersect, veer apart, and slowly come together to plot a citywide rent strike that triggers the nationalization of major banks, preventing economic disaster in the wake of the collapse of a bubble in “intertidal” real estate.

Ramin Talaie/Contributor/getty images

A woman walks down a flooded street in Brooklyn after Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Robinson’s unifying theme is resilience. The novel highlights the ever-present physicality and adaptability of a natural world ruled by weather and water. Tidal flows constrain everyday routines in the neo-Venice. Oyster beds are returning, and aquaculture helps to feed the city. Beavers and muskrats colonize the new swamps in the Bronx and New Jersey. In effect, Robinson projects forward the insights of today’s ecologists, geographers, and environmental historians who are reemphasizing the functions of nature in and of the city.

Robinson’s New Yorkers have the resourcefulness to craft new grassroots institutions—from building co-ops to neighborhood associations to self-help groups—that strive to maintain the upkeep of the island’s surviving skyscrapers. Bureaucrats, first responders, and ordinary citizens all pitch in when a massive storm surge threatens the city. Robinson’s take on the human capacity to meet challenges echoes Rebecca Solnit’s argument in A Paradise Built in Hell (1).

Instructors interested in using science fiction in their classrooms might pair this book with Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2). In a near-future American Southwest, permanent drought has rendered the Colorado River nearly nonexistent, just as climate change models currently suggest. As in New York, corporate capitalism is portrayed as the most powerful actor, controlling water supplies on behalf of the elite, while climate refugees struggle to survive in feral Phoenix.

Bacigalupi’s solution, however, is individual escape, not the painstaking maintenance of community that marks Robinson’s future New York. This contrast highlights Robinson’s commitment to the public sphere of debate and the messy but necessary work of politics.
In the end, the oddly assorted residents of the Met tower initiate local action that leads to real political change. They don’t make the world perfect, but they do make it better. As Robinson sums up, “History … does not stop happening,” and individuals have the responsibility to participate as best they can.

Robinson is a guarded optimist who wants readers to imagine both the possibilities of utopian change and the difficulties of achieving it. The final part of New York 2140, “The Comedy of the Commons,” refers to “comedy” in the literary sense. There are no last-act marriages—the traditional symbol of equilibrium restored—but New York has weathered both a hurricane and a financial storm to emerge stronger than before, giving readers a model for thinking about our own 21st-century future.

References

  1. R. Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking, New York, 2009).

  2. P. Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (Knopf, New York, 2015).

About the author

The reviewer is the author of Imagining Urban Futures:  Cities in Science Fiction and What We Might Learn from Them (Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2016).

  • Never happen. If water rose like that, that means the ice has melted in Greenland, which would cause the Atlantic conveyor underwater current to stop bringing warm water north, and there would be another glaciation and New York would be under a mile of ice. That is what is actually in our future. And scientists used to think that would take centuries, or at least decades, but now they’ve discovered it can happen in less than a decade, and for all we know, it has been 9 years.

  • danbloom

    Would you call this new novel by KSR as a sci-fi novel or a cli-fi novel? Or a hybrid of sci fi and cli fi, since cli fi is a subgenre of scifi? see http://www.cli-fi.net